Imagine having to win over the girl of your dreams…every friggin’ day.
He’s known for his idiot man-child antics. She’s been most successful as a sexy crime fighter. They’ve paired before in a romantic flick, to box office accolades and this reviewer’s disinterest. Here they fall in love in a flick that’s part Groundhog Day, part Memento, and chronicles all 50 First Dates. And hey, it’s better than you’d expect.
Henry Roth (Adam Sandler, Billy Madison) is a sex machine to all the chicks, but he’s not a black private…err, detective; he’s a veterinarian (or is it marine biologist?) who works with the aquatic performers at a Honolulu aquarium. His dating MO is to provide island flings for sexy (or not so sexy) tourists. That is, until one fateful morning when he meets Lucy (Drew Barrymore, Never Been Kissed) in a coffee shop. The two flirt, but go on their separate ways. The next morning he returns to the coffee shop…and she doesn’t remember who he is. Turns out Henry is smitten by a girl with short-term memory loss — a car accident gave her a brain injury that makes her forget what happens from day to day. So, Henry must make the girl of his dreams fall in love with him every day. If you don’t think he’s successful, you don’t watch enough movies.
There’s two ways you can look at 50 First Dates, I suppose: as an Adam Sandler vehicle and as a garden-variety romantic comedy. It would be a bit disingenuous to call Sandler’s brand of comedy “gross-out,” in the same sub-genre as the Brothers Weitz (American Pie) and Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary). Sure, he trades on the sort of bodily-function humor you associate with all things gross, but the mean spirit and envelope-pushing isn’t there. His films have largely revolved around the man-child character type he’s cultivated since his Saturday Night Live days. There’s a sort of innocence there, inexperienced with the world and dealing with it on his own arrested development terms. You still get some of that characterization in 50 First Dates: This is a guy who enjoys making animals puke for comedic effect, who is interested in running away on a boat trip to Alaska (ostensibly to study walruses in the wild, but there’s a deeper need to remove himself from society there), who concocts fanciful stories for tourists to bed them for just one night. But, there’s something rare for a Sandler film: character development. Henry falls in love, and at first it’s just a game, a variation on his dating modus operandi; Lucy doesn’t remember from day to day, so he doesn’t have to lie — all he has to do is have her like him for just one day, then he can start all over. Henry matures because the relationship becomes more than a game to him — his daily make-Lucy-fall-for-him routine becomes something done for her good, not for his own selfish gratification.
In the Sandler oeuvre, 50 First Dates is probably the least typical of his films next to Punch-Drunk Love, and that’s a good thing — it’s probably the most enjoyable film he’s been in since Billy Madison. He’s tried to reinvent himself before into this sort of goofy, likable romantic lead. 1998’s The Wedding Singer was a step in that direction, and while it was quite successful, this reviewer was not won over. 1999’s Big Daddy tried to play both sides — the man-child and the romantic lead — and failed miserably at both (or maybe I didn’t like watching him screw up a young kid’s life for cheap laughs). 2002 saw both Punch-Drunk Love, which doesn’t figure into this discussion as popular career reinvention, and Mr. Deeds, which focused more on bringing nice-guy values to business instead of on his relationship with the undercover reporter. 50 First Dates is a good sign that his career is maturing and that he’ll have longevity as a romcom lead and expand his fanbase outside teenage males (whether they be “teenage” in years or temperament). Some day, an intern working at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is going to prep a career retrospective for Adam Sandler as a potential lifetime achievement award winner. Baby Jesus will cry, and the intern will lose her job, and all will be right in the universe. But, 50 First Dates will be singled out, I hope, as a turning point in Sandler’s career, when he turned his back on his juvenile comedy past toward a promising career as a grown-up comedian. Mostly.
Then there’s the romantic comedy nature of the film itself, outside Sandler as its star. In that sense, it’s pure romcom, formula all the way:
* Boy and Girl meet.
* Boy pursues Girl.
* Girl falls in love with Boy.
* There’s a misunderstanding, and Girl leaves Boy.
* Boy wins Girl back.
* The End.
But you know what? Formulas exist for a reason: They work. Fans expect films to follow these conventions, and for Hollywood mass-appeal type movies, it’s better to stick to conventions. If you want atypical films, look outside Hollywood. 50 First Dates works well within this framework because it understands that the key to success is making you care about the characters. If the leads work as people, not just as pawns of the plot and rote adhesion to The Rules, you’re going to root for their love to work. Henry may be your typical movie schlub, but Lucy is somewhat unique in the pantheon of romcom heroines. When was the last time a chick with amnesia was the love interest? It’s like Memento, except in the right order and without all the messy raping and murdering. And funny. And…well, I guess the only similarity is the lead character with memory problems. And tattoos. Forget I mentioned it. Drew Barrymore is entirely responsible for the character’s success. She successfully essays both the funloving, carefree side of the character as well as the side of her that wakes up every morning and is hit upside the head that her life is quite a bit different than what she remembers. You can see both why a guy would be a fool not to fall in love with her, and why it would be foolish to make a relationship out of it.
In the acting realm, another reason the movie works is Blake Clark, who plays Lucy’s father. He has a long history with Sandler, working with him first in the 1992 Bob Goldthwait vehicle Shakes the Clown, as well as in Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds, and Eight Crazy Nights. His performance isn’t showy, it isn’t particularly funny, but it remarkably captures the feeling of a true father. He doesn’t overplay the protectiveness. He doesn’t lose his cool, but you can tell he means business. Yet, you can tell he loves his daughter very much, and only wants the best for her. His interactions with his on-screen daughter and her potential suitor are really what made 50 First Dates shine. I don’t know if Clark is a father himself, but it’s perhaps the most realistic portrayal of a father in this situation that I’ve seen in this sort of movie.
Columbia’s DVD of 50 First Dates is solid. Video is 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen (a full-frame edition is available separately, but come on, don’t be a dumbass). Colors are solid, and there’s only bare hints of edge enhancement. A good video transfer from Columbia when there’s not “Superbit” on the cover? How can this be? Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 in both English and French. It’s a comedy, so don’t expect to impress your friends. It’s crisp and clean with a mellow aftertaste and good mouth feel. Except, you know, for your ears.
Extras consist of the following, not necessarily in this order:
* Commentary by Director Peter Segal and Drew Barrymore: This commentary is quite a treat. Barrymore was one of the producers of the film, and quite invested in its making. Therefore, she and Segal have a stronger rapport than if it was just star and director on a chat track, and you can tell they’re having a lot of fun recording it. There’s a good mix of production info and behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Besides, you gotta love a commentary where the director tells you you better be watching the widescreen version!
* Deleted Scenes: You get a half-dozen deleted scenes, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen and with optional commentary. Frankly, they’re not very good, and make you glad the studios are slaves to the test screening.
* Outtakes: Seven minutes — seven minutes! — of the actors blowing their lines and screwing around. Oh, and since there’s lots of animals around, you also get animals missing their marks. I’m not a fan of these, but it’s almost worth watching to see Blake Clark call Sean Astin a “hobbit bastard.”
* Featurettes: You get “The Dating Scene” (20 minutes), “Talkin’ Pidgen” (5 minutes), and Comedy Central’s “Reel Comedy” (20 minutes). “The Dating Scene” is your typical promotional making-of featurette. Insert your own description; if you’ve seen even one of these, you know just what to expect. “Talkin’ Pidgen” is ostensibly an introduction to the bastardized Hawaiian/English hybrid slang, but it reminds me more of the late-night talk show standby where people on the street are presented with a trivia question and must answer it or look incredibly stupid — usually the latter. These sort of clips of people giving definitions for the slang are interspersed with clips from the movie, not necessarily using the slang itself. “Reel Comedy” has Rob Schneider in character. I’d tell you more, but as soon as I saw that, I turned it off.
* Music Videos “Hold Me Now” by Wayne Wonder, “Amber” by 311, “Love Song” by 311: Wait until the next section to see what I say about 50 First Dates’s soundtrack. And I don’t even mention 311, which is a good thing.
* “Shh…Don’t Tell”: A promo for Sandler’s latest comedy album. These were better when there was less singing, more comedy.
* Trailers: A metric buttload of trailers: the Seinfeld DVDs, Spider-Man 2, Hellboy, 13 Going On 30, Secret Window, White Chicks, The Company, Anger Management, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Big Daddy, Punch-Drunk Love, Mr. Deeds, and Eight Crazy Nights. Some of these are forced before the film — shame on Columbia.
I rather enjoyed 50 First Dates — which surprised me, because I haven’t liked a Sandler movie since Happy Gilmore and generally am nonplussed by romantic comedies. But, that’s not to say I didn’t find fault with it.
You’ll see that my commentary above is divided into two ways you can approach the film: as an Adam Sandler movie, and as a romantic comedy. It works much better as the latter, but those Sandleresque tics are there, reminding you that it’s one of his movies. There’s the aforementioned walrus barf scene, which I guess I can forgive because it sorta, kinda works into the plot that Henry’s a veterinarian who works with animals at a Seaworld-like park, and that it was sorta, kinda in the line of his work and entertaining to the crowds. He thankfully avoids the funny voices and yelling, mostly, except in one scene toward the end that sorta, kinda works with the plot. But hey, I want to scream every time I hear the Beach Boys too. What really chaps my ass with the aggravating power of a thousand grains of sand in your swim shorts is Rob Schneider. Okay, so I’ll admit, I actually like Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo. Rob was funny on SNL. Heck, he made Judge Dredd watchable…barely. But, here he’s a nuisance and a detriment to the movie. His Hawaiian surfer/slacker/stoner character is so out of place that I could’ve prayed to the talky-tiki to have him killed by that bull walrus. Henry didn’t need a sidekick, let alone one as painfully annoying as this one. Then there’s Alexa, Henry’s gender-ambiguous assistant, played by Lusia Strus, who’s female (I think). She’s there to peg up the laugh-o-meter for the teenaged guys who think calling someone “gay” is the highest insult. Sorry, the movie didn’t need that kind of laugh. And speaking of gay, there’s Sean Astin, blowing whatever karmic goodwill he earned as Samwise Gamgee by playing Lucy’s brother as every cliché of barely repressed homosexuality.
But, then again, there was one Sandleresque touch that did add to the movie, the old person saying off-the-wall things: Joe Nakashima, the “Old Hawaiian Man.” His deadpan delivery and insults toward Henry really made me laugh. The little non sequiturs of Billy Madison (the hallucinogenic penguin, breaking into song, the banana peel) and Happy Gilmore (five words: “The price is wrong, bitch”) are really what sell me on those movies, and it’s good to see that that sense of the odd isn’t entirely lost on modern Sandler fare.
In the grand scheme of things, this is probably a minor complaint, but 50 First Dates‘s soundtrack really irked me. Okay, Hawaii is an island. So is Jamaica. They’re both tropical, they’re both known for their native music. But…the same music isn’t native to both islands! The soundtrack is chock-full of reggae instrumentals, reggae-inspired groups like No Doubt, reggae remixes, reggae poster child Bob Marley (because what’s a reggae-inspired soundtrack without Bob?), and that pox upon the good name of reggae, UB40. Good thing they didn’t confuse it with another island nation, Iceland, and have Björk instrumentals, Björk-inspired groups like Animal Collective, Björk remixes…you get the picture. To make matters worse, there’s a cover — a cover, for god’s sake — of the best love song ever: The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love.” It’s performed by Dryden Mitchell, member of the craptacular Alien Ant Farm, and surprise surprise, it’s got a reggae feel to it. Kill me now. Please. Oh, and to make matters even worse, the score by Teddy Castellucci (heard of him? yeah, me either) is the sort of manipulative schmaltz you dread to accompany this sort of film.
50 First Dates works quite well as a romantic comedy, bringing charm and good feelings despite the comic predilections of its headlining star. When it comes to a recommendation, though, this is a tough sell. Adam Sandler’s constituency — teenage boys — isn’t going to be thrilled with a romantic comedy, and the romcom demographic — women 25-40 — aren’t going to be particularly thrilled with jokes about a walrus’s giant wang. If your heart is touched by the former, and your brain isn’t offended by the latter, it’s definitely worth a rental.
The prosecution is invited to press charges against Rob Schneider, and assured in chambers that a guilty verdict is assured. As for the film, not guilty.